Plato Anxious about Lit’s Pyschic Impact

Rafael Sanzio, "School of Athens"

Rafael Sanzio, “School of Athens”

This is a follow-up to last week’s essay about Plato, where I didn’t dwell enough on Plato’s anxieties about the danger of people imitating literary characters. I’ve been thinking about this issue in terms of recent brain research, both on mirror neurons and on the psychological impact of literature. Once one sees just how deeply literature can reach into the psyche, one can understand Plato’s worries.

A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia,

is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

The research into how mirror neurons work is still in its infancy, but the evidence seems to indicate that (speaking of infancy) new born babies imitate at far deeper levels than we were previously aware. They appear to pick up on everything that the people around them are doing, including how we move our facial muscles to form words. They miss almost nothing.

Now let’s take a step away from actual people to representations of people in literature, what Plato would denigrate as third order imitation. Recent brain research reaffirms what every avid reader has always known: the characters seem like actual beings. Here’s from a report on the research in The New York Times:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. 

And now take a step beyond. There are currently neuroscientists who argue that the greater the literature, the greater the impact. Thus Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park will stimulate more regions of the brain that a bestselling potboiler. I wrote about this in a past blog but here again are some of the highlights, including this note from a New School newsletter:

[P]sychology Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor Emanuele Castano have found that those who read great literature do better on various psychological tests than do those who read either popular fiction or non-fiction.

New York Times blog essay summarizes Kidd and Castano’s findings. It opens with an engaging paragraph that I urge you to take seriously as job hunting advice, even though it sounds flip:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

The article elaborates:

The researchers…found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction. This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.

In explaining the results, the researchers sound like English teachers:

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM [the Theory of Mind test] is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.” (Science Now)

Most of these researchers seem to focus on fiction but I would extend their observations to literature in general. After all, every work of literature plunges us into imagined life, what philosopher of art Susanne Langer refers to as “virtual life.” (Langer, incidentally, is examining all the arts, not just literature.) To cite three random examples, in “To His Coy Mistress,” we put ourselves in the position of a lover longing for a woman, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to a man observing and then reflecting upon daffodils, in The Wasteland to someone experiencing existential despair.

Now back to Plato. After asserting that the ideal republic will need reliable warriors to function as “guardians,” he then says that the guardians themselves need to be protected from fiction, where they could get the wrong ideas. In his mind, this fiction includes Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and countless others. Too often in those works, he complains, we see the gods setting bad examples:

Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the basest, should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven, and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, for they are not true. No, we shall never mention the battles of the giants, or let them be embroidered on garments; and we shall be silent about the innumerable other quarrels of gods and heroes with their friends and relatives. If they would only believe us we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Hera his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

This sounds like a prescription for dull, didactic morality tales, not for great art. Plato, however, is interested only in the smooth functioning of his republic, not our aesthetic sensibilities. And he’s only getting started in bashing the poets:

And if any one asserts that the violation of oaths and treaties, which was really the work of Pandarus, was brought about by Athena and Zeus, or that the strife and contention of the gods was instigated by Themis and Zeus, he shall not have our approval; neither will we allow our young men to hear the words of Aeschylus, that God plants guilt among men when he desires utterly to destroy a house. And if a poet writes of the sufferings of Niobe–the subject of the tragedy in which these iambic verses occur–or of the house of Pelops, or of the Trojan war or on any similar theme, either we must not permit him to say that these are the works of God, or if they are of God, he must devise some explanation of them such as we are seeking; he must say that God did what was just and right, and they were the better for being punished; but that those who are punished are miserable, and that God is the author of their misery–the poet is not to be permitted to say; though he may say that the wicked are miserable because they require to be punished, and are benefited by receiving punishment from God; but that God being good is the author of evil to any one is to be strenuously denied, and not to be said or sung or heard in verse or prose by any one whether old or young in any well-ordered commonwealth. Such a fiction is suicidal, ruinous, impious. 

And finally:

These are the kind of sentiments about the gods which will arouse our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them in the instruction of the young, meaning, as we do, that our guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshippers of the gods and like them. 

As I noted last week, Plato must be given credit for acknowledging the power of literature. Of course, those of us who think that the guardians would be better served by learning to think for themselves rather than being mindless rule followers have no problem with them reading the great Greek poets.

The fear of readers imitating bad actions remains to this day. We still have people voicing Plato’s objections to works like Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I plan to return to this issue again in an upcoming post, this time checking out what Plato’s most famous pupil had to say on the subject.

Advance notice: Aristotle is far more positive about the effects of literature.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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